George Kennan
George Kennan; drawing by David Levine

America’s foreign policy pundits are afflicted with a Kennan complex. Fifty-six years ago, in July 1947, the American journal Foreign Affairs published an essay entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” The anonymous author—“X”—was George Kennan, then on the policy planning staff at the State Department. Kennan’s essay developed the arguments adumbrated in his now-famous “long cable,” a confidential telegraphic message sent from the US embassy in Moscow on February 22, 1946, that laid out for Kennan’s bosses in Washington the background to Soviet foreign policy and recommended to Western leaders what became known as the strategy of containment. It is hard to exaggerate the influence of Kennan’s brief, elegant exposition of the international situation of 1947 and its lessons for US policy: notwithstanding his modest ambitions (and to his later regret) he had written the script for the coming cold war.

Ever since, Kennan’s successors in and out of the US foreign policy establishment have been struggling to match his achievement. When the cold war ended, specialists fell upon the occasion. A pattern emerged: first came an ambitious essay-length interpretation of the moment and its meaning; then, a year or two later, a much-hyped book-length extension of that essay; finally, if the author was lucky, a phrase or two that hung for a while in the ether of specialist exchanges—“the End of History,” “the Clash of Civilizations”—before evaporating under the pressure of its own pretensions. Unlike Kennan, however, his would-be heirs nurse metatheoretical aspirations, whereas Kennan was building policy recommendations out of close local observation.1 They don’t write as well as he did; and they have scant desire to hide their authorial light under the bushel of anonymity. Not surprisingly, the implicit comparison is consistently unflattering: kissed only by the shadow of Kennan’s achievement, his successors—like Portia’s suitors—“have but a shadow’s bliss.”2

The latest contender is Robert Kagan, director of the US Leadership Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His article “Power and Weakness” appeared in Policy Review in June 2002; his book (injudiciously overpraised by those who ought to know better) is now published just in time for the war its author has long advocated; and his catch phrase “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus” is doing business around the globe. Like many in contemporary Washington, he is interested not so much in strategy as in power: who has it, who doesn’t. In Kagan’s view, Europeans today live in a “Kantian” postmodern paradise; they are at peace with one another and have constructed for themselves a happy way of life, based on negotiation, cooperation, rules—and impotence. Americans, meanwhile, are mired in history, in a dangerous “Hobbesian” world of interests and conflicts, where the law of the jungle applies and survival rests on armed power.

This sharply drawn contrast accounts, in Kagan’s view, for the present chasm separating the two sides of the Atlantic. The Europeans have a mission (in his words) to universalize the pacific model of their European Union, through international treaties, courts, agencies, and other transnational regulatory bodies. This brings them into confrontation with Washington, since the United States, part of whose burden entails protecting Europe against the folly of its own military inadequacy, cannot be constrained by such bodies. The US is the only world power with global military reach; it is thus a ready target for the enemies of freedom; and it must therefore be ready to fight. There is no reason, Kagan concludes, why Europeans and Americans shouldn’t strive to understand one another better; but part of that understanding requires that they accept how very different they have become.

In broad-brush terms Kagan is correct, though hardly original. American leaders do think more readily of going to war, and they have the means to do so. Europeans are far more committed to multilateral institutions, of which they have considerable experience. But Kagan has magnified this staple truism of newspaper editorials into a geopolitical treatise, and that is where the trouble starts. Under closer scrutiny, its assumptions quickly dissolve. For example: Kagan repeatedly labels “Hobbesian” the international anarchy that he invokes to justify America’s muscular unilateralism. But this is a crass misreading of Hobbes’s position.

Drawing on his observations of seventeenth-century England in an age of civil war, Thomas Hobbes argued that the very laws of nature that threaten to make men’s lives “solitary, poor, nasty, brutal and short” require us to form a common authority for our separate and collective protection. Notice that “solitary,” though: in Hobbes’s account men are not so much in permanent conflict as unengaged one with another. In a “Hobbesian” international world, states—by analogy with individuals—would come together out of their shared interest in security, relinquishing some autonomy and freedom in return for the benefits of a secure environment in which to pursue their separate concerns. This was the genuinely “Hobbesian” solution devised by the American statesmen of an earlier generation, who built the international institutions that Kagan would now tear asunder.


As for the Kantian paradise of the Europeans (the allusion is to Kant’s 1795 essay “On Perpetual Peace”): Kagan has forgotten the very recent past, in which European infantrymen died on peacekeeping missions in Asia, Africa, and Europe while American generals foreswore foreign ground wars lest US soldiers get killed. If Americans are from Mars, they rediscovered the martial virtues rather recently. Kagan has also missed some interesting polls. When asked last year whether they approved of the use of military power to protect their interests, British, French, Italian, and Polish respondents all showed more support for military action than did American respondents. Only the Germans were less enthusiastic. Europeans may not like wars—in which respect they are indeed at odds with the current US administration, though in tune with many Americans—but they are not pacifists, either.3

Kagan’s claim that “weaker powers” (like Europe) historically seek to constrain stronger ones through international structures is likewise misleading. The international agencies we know today were the work of strong powers—notably the US. By universalizing and institutionalizing their own interests, great powers have a much better chance of convincing others to do their bidding, and can reduce the risk of provoking a “coalition of the unwilling” against them. If Kagan looks around him, he will see that this is what the US has recently been attempting in the United Nations—admittedly with limited success, thanks to international resentment at the “neo-Hobbesian” approach advocated by Kagan and his friends and practiced for the past two years.

Robert Kagan wants it both ways. At the end of his book he rather limply asks that Americans and Europeans show better mutual comprehension; but the foregoing 100 pages display not just ignorance of the recent European past and current European diversity, but an undertone of arrogant condescension, mixed with a certain amount of humbug: “The problem,” he writes, is that “the United States must sometimes play by the rules of a Hobbesian world, even though in doing so it violates Europe’s postmodern norms.” But the norms that Washington currently violates are its own—there is nothing uniquely European, much less postmodern, about the rule of law or the desirability of peace over war. And as Kagan’s whole book makes very clear, this doesn’t pose a problem to him. For Kagan, the Europeans, to adapt an earlier exercise in imperial hubris, are “weeny, weedy and weaky.” Violating their norms, for Robert Kagan and a new generation of policy specialists in Washington, is part of the fun.4

Like Kagan, Michael Mandelbaum believes that we live today in an American world and finds this a source of satisfaction. But otherwise the two could not be more different. There is a lot of history in The Ideas That Conquered the World, whose author teaches at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and is an established scholar of US foreign policy. There is also a seductive thesis. Mandelbaum argues that the twenty-first century will see the final apotheosis of the “Wilsonian triad”: peace, markets, and democracy. After a century of conflict these three interrelated goals of liberal internationalism have triumphed over their historical foes, and the “plot” of post–cold war history will be their “defense, …maintenance,…and extension.”

Mandelbaum’s thesis connects two separate claims. The first is that democracy and free markets have become the condition of modern life in the sense that nations that do not subscribe to both are outside the international consensus. The second is that democracies conduct peaceful foreign policies and don’t make war on one another. There has been much recent scholarly discussion of the latter assertion,5 but the general thesis is actually quite venerable: its eighteenth-century version can be found in both Montesquieu and Adam Smith, who argued that just government and limited taxation were good in themselves and likely to favor friendly relations among states. The idea that flourishing commerce (i.e., free markets) inhibits armed conflict can also be found in John Stuart Mill and a number of other nineteenth- century political economists.

Mandelbaum’s distinctive contribution is to suggest that this process was heavily foreordained. His history of the ultimate vindication of Wilsonian principles is unashamedly “Whiggish.” It isn’t just good fortune that brought us to this happy pass, he suggests. Progress happens, and we are its beneficiaries. The ancien régime, agrarian societies, Leninism, fascism, and socialism all fell by the wayside because they were inefficient, or dysfunctional, or unpopular, or all three. Like Karl Marx, Michael Mandelbaum is attracted to the idea that capitalism wreaks creative destruction, bringing with it the ineluctable triumph of new economic and political forms—in this case, political democracy and the free market in goods and ideas. And these good things go together.6


This isn’t entirely convincing: I’m not sure we were ever “bound” to end up where we happen to be and, in part for that reason, I’m pessimistic about our chances of staying there. The twentieth century could easily have gone in another direction: the triumph of democracy in particular looked quite unlikely as recently as 1941. As for free markets: they are inherently capricious (which is why earlier theorists thought they required firm political oversight). From an egalitarian point of view, market economies consistently misallocate goods, both within countries and between them. There is therefore always the likelihood, especially in a democracy, that the redistributive appeal of economic controls will trump the wealth-generating case for unregulated exchange, as indeed it did for much of the past century—and not only in “socialist” Europe. Democracy and the free market have proven enduringly compatible only under historically unusual conditions of prosperity, or else in protected domestic settings and typically at the expense of third parties somewhere else.7

Professor Mandelbaum knows this, of course. As he concedes, the relations that he posits are “a predisposition, not an inevitable law of politics.” But he is an optimist. No one today, he writes, doubts that “peace, liberty, and prosperity” are the supreme ends of life. The twentieth century shows the price of thinking otherwise. Accordingly, the overriding question in international affairs is how to secure and preserve these hard-won lessons. It is one of the strengths of this book—in addition to the clarity of its prose—that the author’s particular brand of idealism leads him to emphasize the role of the modern state.

Mandelbaum has little tolerance for the clichés of “globalization.” We don’t live in a post-sovereign age, he insists. On the contrary: “The three components of Woodrow Wilson’s vision—democracy, free markets, and peace—may be understood as public goods in that an effective state is needed to establish each of them.” The world of the post–cold war era, like the world of the cold war, is a world of sovereign states, and only the traditional state can effectively act as the agent of its own and its citizens’ interests. The greatest of all sovereign states—the US—happens also to be the country that has done most to promote and benefit from democracy and free markets. The interests and responsibilities of American foreign policy thus remain intimately bound up with those of other similarly disposed states.

Unlike Kagan, therefore, Mandelbaum appreciates the significance of Europeans’ “invention of peace,” as he puts it, and emphasizes the shared interest of America and Europe in the common security arrangements so carefully put in place in recent decades. Cooperation brings strength, not weakness. Present tiffs across the Atlantic should not distract us from the benefits that Europeans, Americans, and everyone else glean from the joint pursuit of shared interests. Peace, markets, and democracy, Mandelbaum concludes, are about as good as it gets. In any case, the alternatives are not merely worse; after our recent experience they are surely unthinkable.

But that is just the problem. Influential people in Washington are indeed, once again, thinking “the unthinkable.” The Bush administration is breaking away from the very system of international relations that Mandelbaum posits as the shape of the coming century; and in influential circles around President George W. Bush peace is becoming, as we have seen in Robert Kagan’s writing, a term of near abuse. Why is this happening?

According to Charles Kupchan, the paradoxical explanation is that the American imperium so enthusiastically announced by Kagan and his colleagues is a dangerous mirage. Despite appearances, the post–cold war American monopoly is already on the wane. The “unipolar” window is fast closing, and in its place we shall see a return to unstable, multiple poles of power, in which the US will need—as in the past—to compromise and negotiate with allies and competitors. The most important of these competing poles will be an expanded and united Europe, whose rise will coincide with an American retreat from expensive international engagements. “Getting right this devolution of responsibility from America to Europe should be a central objective of US grand strategy.”

Mr. Kupchan, who teaches international relations at Georgetown and served on the National Security Council under Clinton, is a realist with ideals. Mandelbaum’s Wilsonian apotheosis doesn’t impress him: there is, in his account, no “permanent peace” under benevolent American supervision, merely an illusory lull in international great power confrontation. Furthermore, there is a tension in American policy between the urge to remake the world and the old instinct for quick forays followed by withdrawal and disengagement. The US has neither the means nor the appetite for sustained international involvement. Knowing this, US strategists should be working to strengthen the sorts of transnational restraints and institutions that will serve America best when it has to live once again in a world it cannot dominate.

Kupchan’s account of the domestic roots and strategic contradictions of American foreign engagement is convincing and well supported. He is thoughtful, too, on a related matter: the unraveling fabric of America’s domestic institutions, though he rather mechanistically attributes this to “a shift in the mode of production.” He does, though, suffer from the occupational deformation of international relations specialists: an enthusiasm for ransacking the past in search of precedents, analogies, patterns, and cycles that might explain the present and forecast the future. “History” is scanned into the text, but contributes little to our understanding. In Kupchan’s book there are lengthy, sweeping, and redundant historical summaries, covering everything from late Imperial Rome to the 1815 Congress of Vienna, intended to illustrate how empires rise and fall, unipolar moments come and go, and so forth. These musings add little to the argument, and they distract attention from the main point.

The crux of Kupchan’s thesis is that an integrated and prosperous Europe “could well emerge as a formidable entity on a new geopolitical map of the world.” This united Europe, in Kupchan’s account, didn’t just happen: it was a deliberate project, the achievement and objective of Europe’s “founding fathers” in the wake of Hitler’s defeat. “In the aftermath of World War II, Europeans saw the challenge before them, designed their geopolitical map of the future, and set out to make that map a reality.” It wasn’t like that at all, of course—in the aftermath of World War II most European leaders were too busy digging out of the rubble to plan the geopolitical future.8 But however that may be, Europe today does pose an economic and geostrategic alternative to American power. Kupchan would agree with David Calleo, a Washington- based expert on European affairs, who sees in Europe’s “hybrid confederacy” a “genuinely new political form,” a standing challenge to the American model. If other analysts look “right past” the significance of a united Europe, it is because they simply don’t recognize this new creature.

In one sense Kupchan’s timing is unfortunate. His book has appeared just as the present and future member states of this united Europe have fallen to internecine squabbling, unable to agree on a common response to America’s martial activism. Some, like Britain, Spain, and Italy, have chosen to line up with their longstanding American protector. Others, like France, Germany, and Belgium, have asserted a “European” difference that certainly reflects public opinion across the continent, but leads them into a strategic cul-de-sac. The East Europeans have buckled under unprecedented American diplomatic pressure and bribery; for those in Brussels, Paris, and elsewhere who didn’t want them in the Union anyway, that will not soon be forgotten.9 If this is the geostrategic challenger America now faces, why should Washington lose sleep?

Yet Kupchan may be right. The EU, as Calleo reminds us (in the afterword to a new edition of Rethinking Europe’s Future), has still to think seriously about “power”: how to acquire it, how to use it. It wasn’t constructed with that objective in mind, and it hasn’t resolved the problem of large nation-states in its midst that won’t relinquish control over their foreign policies. But Europe, especially “old Europe,” is much more in tune than the US with the thinking of the rest of the world on everything from environmental threats to international law, and its social legislation and economic practices are more congenial to foreigners and more readily exportable than the American variants. US policy and politics, in Kupchan’s view, are poorly adapted to the complexity of today’s world. And it is the US, not Europe, that is increasingly dependent on foreign investment to feed its deficit-laden economy and sustain its vulnerable currency.

Thus when American leaders throw fits of pique at European dissent, and provoke and encourage internal European divisions, these are signs of incipient weakness, not strength. Real power is influence and example, backed up by understated reminders of military force. When a great power has to buy its allies, bribe its friends, and blackmail its critics, something is amiss. The energetic American response to September 11 is thus misleading, in Kupchan’s view. Like Mandelbaum, but for opposite reasons, he treats the “war on terror” as a “surface feature” that does not affect “underlying tectonic forces and the location of fault lines.” The bedrock reality is a world from which the US will either retreat in frustration or with which it will have to engage on cooperative terms. Either way, the “American era” is passing.

There is another sort of explanation for the turbulence of the coming age, and it concerns the third leg of the Wilsonian triad: “democracy.” In most accounts of the coming of mass society and, more recently, “globalization,” the spread of democracy is taken for granted. “Democracy” is the name we now give to any political arrangement that purports to include all adult citizens on equal terms into its system of governance, and that is regarded by those same citizens as the legitimate vehicle for the expression of their interests. We are all democrats today. The defense and extension of democracy are the commonplace justifications for America’s overseas presence.

But, as Fareed Zakaria argues in a new book, the protean qualities of democracy can be misleading.10 In much of the world, democracy is often the direct heir to authoritarian dictatorship and a substitute for good government. We are all familiar with the late, unlamented “people’s democracies,” but even in more genuine democracies the spurious legitimacy of public elections frequently obscures infirm and corrupt institutions. The source of Western success and the basis for both free markets and international peace, Zakaria suggests, had been the distinctive tradition of representative government, protected civil freedoms, and public law that originated in northwest Europe (specifically Britain), before migrating across the Atlantic. Democratic voting rights and free elections flow from these blessings; they do not necessarily bring them in their wake. “The ‘Western model of government’ is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge.”

That “democracy” can be inimical to liberty is hardly a novel thought; it has led many to prefer rule by an uncorrupted civic elite over demagogic manipulation of volatile, uninformed multitudes. The imperfections of modern democracy are troublingly obvious, and Zakaria summarizes them well. States, in his view, don’t need to be made more democratic, they need to be sheltered from the perverse pressures generated by unconstrained mass rule. Most democratic theorists would respond that competent administrative elites cannot be conjured up at will; and while minority rights clauses and other constraints are important, it is only the ballot box that can confer public legitimacy. It may be, as Zakaria suggests, that we set too much store by elections and their outcomes. But they are all we have.

Zakaria’s skepticism is a nice antidote to Mandelbaum’s Wilsonian picture. It also suggests that if we have lived in a peaceful world these past fifty years, this has little to do with democracy. It is liberal states—states that have enshrined the constitutional protection of liberties—that don’t go to war with one another. Democracies may or may not be warlike—they haven’t actually been around long enough to draw conclusions (though Alexander Hamilton thought “popular assemblies” were unlikely to prove peace-loving, and nothing in the past two centuries has proven him obviously wrong). In any case, the world itself is not a democracy, so there is nothing even in Mandelbaum’s thesis to preclude international war, particularly between liberal and illiberal democracies. And, for liberal and illiberal democracies alike, it is nuclear weapons rather than public opinion that have most effectively inhibited aggression.

Self-generating liberal democracies are historically unusual, even in the West. Like capitalism, they require, in order to succeed, indigenous antecedent qualities that cannot be retroactively supplied. Democratic institutions grafted from abroad onto cul- turally distinctive and impoverished nations have a mixed track record. America’s rediscovered mission, to make the world “safe for democracy,” thus risks proving self-defeating, even in its more plausible guise as a mis-sion to make the world safe for Americans. And in the absence of any accompanying ambition to make the rest of the world richer, safer, healthier, or better educated, this mission stands a good chance of constructing and defending some quite unwholesome “democracies.”11

We are living in an unusually uncertain moment. There are no secure conclusions about the future of peace, free markets, or anything else to be derived from the monopoly enjoyed today by the Anglo-American model. People forget quickly. Should liberal democracy fail to deliver on its promises, or be undermined by geopolitical overreach, then arguments for regulation, protection, and control (of markets and people alike) will be heard once again. And it will be democrats of a certain kind who will be the first to present them.

The best way to prevent this is by judiciously applied restrictions on the “natural” workings of the international system. Just as the much-maligned European welfare states stabilized capitalist economies after 1945, by mitigating the impact of the market and thus demobilizing political criticism from both extremes, so the trans-national institutions and agencies, treaties and laws of our time have facilitated international order by reducing the risks for smaller countries of unprotected exposure to the economic and political pressures from larger neighbors and competitors. The United States has benefited greatly from the stability these arrangements have facilitated. To threaten to leave the World Trade Organization, or to dismantle years of work on an International Criminal Court, is perverse.

What is missing in recent American commentary is not so much an appreciation of history—there has been too much of that, with “Munich” invoked at every turn. What is lacking is a sense of the tragic. If the US has had such a long run of foreign policy successes in the modern age, it is in large measure because, as Dean Acheson once put it, “we were fortunate in our opponents.” This may not last. We were also fortunate in our leaders. This has certainly not lasted. There is much confident talk of the coming American century; but one hundred years ago many thought it was Germany that held the keys to the new era—and they had good reasons for thinking it. As Raymond Aron once remarked, the twentieth century could have been the German century.

Things can go wrong very fast, even and perhaps especially for an over-reaching great power. Like the German planners of 1914, today’s Washington strategists are obsessed with challenges, timetables, windows of opportunity—and the eschatological urge to tear down a frustrating international order and remake it in their image. They, too, have exaggerated the threats and underestimated the risks. That is as far as the analogy goes—Imperial Germany and Republican America have little else in common. But hubris is not a shortcoming peculiar to any one constitutional form; and the inability to envisage nemesis is modern America’s distinctive failing.

To be sure, things can go right, too, and the twenty-first century may yet belong to America. But just now, as Zhou Enlai is reported to have replied when asked what he thought were the consequences of the French Revolution, it’s too soon to tell. In the meantime, as they are about to go to war, our leaders are betting the farm on the dream of a world that will for the foreseeable future perform America’s bidding on nonnegotiable American terms. When, at the dawn of the American age, George Kennan urged that the US contain the Soviet challenge, he added: “It is important to note, however, that such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward ‘toughness.'” Fifty-six years on, his advice goes unheeded. It is a bad sign

March 12, 2003;
this is the second of three articles.

This Issue

April 10, 2003